Silverman: Kaepernick, Defensive Speed Give 49ers The Advantage
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By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The game is the thing.
The back stories change each year, but they really are so much filler.
If you want to listen to Ray Lewis blather on about what God wants or doesn’t want to happen on the football field, go ahead. It’s your time that you are wasting.
The game itself is the story.
The Harbaugh brothers both have teams that have performed spectacularly in the postseason. Jim’s 49ers were also quite good in the regular season, while John’s Ravens were fairly ordinary and didn’t really turn it around until Jim Caldwell took the reins of the offense from Cam Cameron.
Here are the 10 players – five from each team – who I see as having the most impact on this game. Note that you will not see Lewis or 49ers wide receiver Randy Moss, who is not the best receiver of all-time and is not even the best receiver in this game.
QB Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco – The quarterback’s worst moment in the postseason turned out to be his best. Early in the divisional playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick threw an awful pass that Packers defensive back Sam Shield picked off and returned 52 yards for a touchdown. Less than three minutes into his first playoff game, Kaepernick had made and egregious error that could have thrown the game in Green Bay’s favor. It didn’t bother Kaepernick a lick and he ended up having one of the greatest postseason games in history. Kaepernick ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns and he threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns. Kaepernick is unflappable and that should work in his favor in the Super Bowl.
QB Joe Flacco, Baltimore – Elite, not elite, it doesn’t matter. Flacco can play the game and he has one of the two or three strongest arms in the league. When Flacco goes deep with the long ball, he puts it in a place for Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones or Anquan Boldin to catch. He does not throw a long ball that opponents can intercept easily. The numbers bear that out. He has thrown eight TD passes in the postseason and has not thrown any interceptions. Flacco doesn’t care if Lewis, Kaepernick or the coaching Harbaugh brothers get all the publicity, he’s more than willing to let his arm do the talking.
RB Frank Gore, San Francisco – Talk about a throwback player. Gore is an old-fashioned, run-right-through-you type of running back. There is nothing fancy about Gore’s game. He will be more than happy to take the ball from Kaepernick, run right up the middle and take on Lewis. Gore never looks for the easy way out. If the 49ers get the lead, watch Gore eat up the clock in the fourth quarter.
RB Ray Rice, Baltimore – Just like Gore, Rice is not looking for any shortcuts. He may not be a big package, but he will take on much bigger men and punish them with his power. He’s also an excellent receiver who will keep drives alive with his ability to catch the ball on third-down plays. The 5-8, 212-pound Rice can also cut down much bigger linebackers with his blocking.
LB NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco – Bowman is to Patrick Willis what Lance Briggs is to Brian Urlacher. The only adjustment to that analogy is that both 49ers linebackers are approaching the peak of their careers while the two Bears are definitely not. Bowman is an exceptional tackler who approaches the ball carrier at shocking speed. Bowman had 149 tackles during the season and he also had 11 passes defensed.
FS Ed Reed, Baltimore – Reed has the ability to turn the game in the Ravens’ favor if the 49ers are not going to respect him. He is perhaps the smartest free safety to ever play the game and he is also a sensational athlete who can score any time he gets his hands on the football. Kaepernick must take note of where Reed is every time he wants to throw a pass of medium or great depth. If he does not, Reed will make him pay with an interception and a long return.
OLB Aldon Smith, San Francisco – Smith had 19.5 sacks this season, but much is being made of the string zeroes he has put on the board since Week 14 when Smith had 2.0 sacks against the Miami Dolphins. That’s a mistake. Smith has benefited from the off-week between the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl and he should be able to turn the corner and get to Flacco at least once or twice.
SS Bernard Pollard, Baltimore – He is probably the hardest hitting Ravens player, and his knockout shot on Stevan Ridley of the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game basically clinched that game for Baltimore. Pollard led the Ravens in tackles this season and he is not a drag-down guy. When he confronts Gore in the open field, take note of who gets the best of that battle.
WR Michael Crabtree, San Francisco – Crabtree is the receiver whom Kaepernick is going to look to in the game’s biggest moments. Crabtree is a 6-1, 214-pound receiver who knows how to get open even when he gets jammed hard at the line of scrimmage. Crabtree has magnificent hands and balance and that allows him to make big plays on a consistent basis.
WR-KR Jacoby Jones, Baltimore – The special teams advantage goes to the Ravens. Jones had two kickoff returns for touchdowns this year and he also returned a punt for a score. The Ravens may have given up a pair of special teams touchdowns to the Broncos in the divisional playoff game, but that was a fluke. The Ravens had the best special-teams differential of any team in the league. Jones is a also a solid deep threat. His 70-yard TD reception against the Broncos in the final minute of the fourth quarter allowed the Ravens to send the game to overtime and then come up with the victory.
Both teams have superior coaching and excellent running attacks. However, Kaepernick is a superb weapon who has the athleticism to do things that Flacco can’t. The 49ers also have the speed and the attack mentality on defense that the Ravens once did.
That’s why San Francisco will come away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.